Ethiopia disclosed plans last week to fell 17,000 hectares (40,000 acres) of forest around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) as part of engineering works for the third filling of the dam’s reservoir, saying it will complete the work within two months. Satellite pictures, however, show no sign that construction work in preparation for the third filling or for generating electricity has started, says Abbas Sharaki, a professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University.
Sharaki points out that for the dam to be ready for another filling the middle passage of GERD must first be partially drained. This can be done either by operating one or two turbines to generate electricity, or by releasing stored water. A concrete wall can then be erected to raise the body of the dam by 20 metres to reach 595 metres, as was planned before last year’s incomplete second filling.
If the work is completed, Sharaki says Addis Ababa will be able to store 10.5 billion cubic metres of water, contributing to the 18.5 billion cubic metres Ethiopia wants to store by the end of this year’s rainy season. Ethiopia’s avowed aim is to add an additional 10 billion cubic metres of water annually until the target of 74 billion cubic metres is reached.
“Although generating electricity would mean more water coming to Egypt and Sudan, it also means that Addis Ababa has unilaterally taken the decision to fill the dam for the third time without reaching an agreement,” points out Sharaki.
The announcement of deforestation of the area around GERD came during a meeting that included the Ethiopian Minister of Irrigation Aisha Mohamed, and Al-Shazli Hassan, the governor of the Benishangul-Gumuz region, the region where the dam is located. A statement issued after the meeting noted that deforestation will be completed within 60 days of starting work.
Ahead of the second filling in July last year 4,854 hectares of land were cleared.
A diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, stresses that Addis Ababa has repeatedly said that it will start generating electricity even without reaching an agreement with downstream countries, and that “these statements, together with this month’s government meeting at the site of the dam, aim to distract public attention from domestic problems and internal conflicts.”
The Ethiopian government, headed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, held its first meeting at the site of the dam earlier this month, ostensibly to evaluate the first 100 days of the government’s performance following Ahmed’s re-election as prime minister in July.
The Ethiopian press has also carried reports that the dam is ready to start testing its power generation capacity and that Addis Ababa hopes the first two turbines will furnish 20 per cent of the country’s electricity.
Ethiopia, says Sharaki, has repeatedly failed to meet these self-imposed deadlines for power generation. It originally planned for two turbines to start operating in 2014. Since when date after date has been announced, none of which have been met.
Cairo and Khartoum have repeatedly rejected Ethiopia’s unilateral filling of the dam before a binding agreement on GERD’s operation is reached, and Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli reaffirmed Cairo’s position this week in an interview with the BBC.
“All we are calling for is a legally binding agreement that will provide room for development in all three countries and allow them to benefit from the Nile. It is not in the interest of our peoples to differ or fight for a natural resource that God has granted to all of us,” he said.
Tripartite negotiations on GERD stopped in April after Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia failed to reach an agreement, ahead of the second filling of the dam which Ethiopia implemented in July. Hopes were raised in August when Algeria offered to mediate between the three countries in an attempt to restart the tripartite negotiations. Algeria’s Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra subsequently visited the three states but no date was set for the resumption of talks.
Lamamra ended another meeting with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri in Cairo this week without any indication that the dam issue had been broached, dashing whatever hopes remained for a successful Algerian mediation.
“Although the main aim of Lamamra’s visit was to prepare for the summit of the Arab League, which will be held in Algeria, there was still some residual hope that the issue would be resolved or even mentioned,” said the diplomat.
When the UN Security Council met in July last year to discuss the issue of Tunisia, the only Arab member (non-permanent) of the council submitted a draft resolution calling on Ethiopia to negotiate in good faith and setting a timetable of six months for reaching an agreement, under the umbrella of the AU, on the filling and operation of the dam. Ethiopia slammed the session as an “unhelpful distraction” to the AU-led negotiating process.
While Egypt and Sudan had expected the UNSC to draw a roadmap for the resumption of talks, the session concluded without a vote on the draft resolution. The UNSC did, however, issue a presidential statement in September urging Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt to resume negotiations, under the auspices of the AU, and “finalise the text of a mutually acceptable agreement on filling and operating the dam within a reasonable time frame”.
Egypt fears that continued filling of the dam in the absence of any stipulations enshrined in an agreement will reduce the flow of Nile water on which Egypt depends. Sudan is worried Ethiopia’s unilateral actions will endanger its own dams.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.